Guatemala: Barcenas Health and Dignity Project


The Problem

Guatemala is facing epidemic levels of violence against women. Over the past decade, more than 5,000 women and young girls have been murdered. Many of them were raped and mutilated, their bodies discarded in public places. Despite the high prevalence of femicide (the gender-based murder of women) and gender-based violence in Guatemala, little has been done to counter it. These attacks are rarely investigated and fewer than one percent of cases have been brought to trial.

US-driven neo-liberal economic policies have lined the pockets of US-based agribusinesses and have driven farmers and small-business owners into low-paying, high-risk jobs at maquilas (sweatshops) in the cities. Without the protection of unions, Guatemala's 80,000 maquila workers suffer deplorable conditions and earn subsistence wages. The massive exodus from the countryside has also forced families to live in impoverished settlements on the outskirts of Guatemala City, where people lack access to basic human rights such as clean drinking water, sanitation and health care.

Women living in these conditions and working in maquilas face violence in the workplace, at home and on the streets, where there is no street lighting or reliable police protection. Women who speak out for their rights and against the epidemic of violence in Guatemala have been threatened and harassed.

The Solution

MADRE and our partners at the Barcenas Women Workers’ Committee are promoting health and security for women and families in the Barcenas neighborhood of Guatemala City through a combination of community-based projects and human rights advocacy. Together, we are:

  • Enhancing security by creating neighborhood watch groups in the communities. We offer group sessions for women to learn basic safety precautions they can take, and we equip women in the community with flashlights and whistles as an additional safety measure.
  • Conducting labor rights and human rights trainings for women to learn to identify and defend their rights, both on and off the factory floor. We offer community skills-building classes in order to provide them with options beyond work in maquilas in the hopes of breaking the cycle of poverty which often goes hand-in-hand with violence.
  • Providing reproductive health services for women who have no other source of healthcare. We facilitate health fairs where women and children learn about health and hygiene. At the fairs women receive free Pap smears, health and hygiene supplies, vaccinations, school supplies for their children, and vital information about family planning, nutrition, and preventive health care.
  • Advocating for change by encouraging women to report instances of abuse, and provide a supportive and safe space for women to discuss sexual and psychological violence they have endured in the home or workplace. At the international level, the Women Workers’ Committee is speaking out against violence against women. With support from MADRE, the Committee is presenting information about violence and human rights abuses in conjunction with the United Nations campaign to end violence against women, UNITE.

The Results

  • Women in Barcenas are better equipped to demand their rights--in the workplace, in the community and in the home.
  • Women are active participants in finding solutions to the epidemic of violence.
  • Women who have been denied the right to an education are learning to read and write and learning new skills which provide them with more job options. Currently, there are 5,500 women, young adults and children enrolled in the literacy program.
  • Women are learning what precautions they can take for their own safety. They are carrying flashlights and whistles, and they walk in groups when they can.
  • The women of Barcenas are building an enduring social network needed to sustain a struggle for human rights.
  • Women have access to check-ups and essential reproductive health services.
  • Women in the community are speaking out against the violence they face and advocating for their own rights. The testimony that they provide is used at the local, national and international levels to compile reports on gender based violence.  These reports will be used as advocacy tools for the Women Workers’ Committee, and as models to help other women’s groups mobilize against violence in their communities.

Photo Credit: Bradley Parker